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The bane of your working life?

Imposter syndrome is a problem for women in offices up and down the land and it's holding us back. Here's my personal take.

Have you ever felt Imposter Syndrome? It’s something of a buzz phrase these days, but was actually coined 40 years ago by psychologists to describe a debilitating mix of anxiety and the inability to believe that you are successful.

Recent research has shown it afflicts 66% of women (versus 56% of men) in the business world, with those working in arts and design most likely to experience the syndrome – a jaw-dropping 87% of all creatives. Entrepreneurs are more likely to experience it because they have more at stake – they’re personally accountable for their failures in a way that employees are not, plus they’re forever stepping outside of their comfort zone and pushing forward.

Until a few weeks ago it wasn’t something that had ever troubled me, but I’ve now reluctantly joined the club of those experiencing sweaty-palmed self-doubt. I was asked over the summer to be the guest speaker at a prize-giving ceremony at Francis Holland School, a top girls’ school in Sloane Square, London. I accepted partly out of curiosity – I compile Muddy’s Best Schools Guide so I was feeling a bit nosey. Plus I was flattered to be asked, and felt a bit nostalgic for my own school days.

Tiny at the lectern. Huge on the screen.

When I found out the venue wasn’t the school but rather historic Chelsea concert venue Cadogan Hall (above), and I’d be speaking to almost a thousand people (a thousand!), I nearly said no. Then I said yes. Mainly because I’m stubborn and can’t resist a challenge. Also because Liz Earle, founder of the multi-million pound beauty business, had been the guest of honour the year before and it kind of tickled me to follow her though it was clearly making me anxious too – the number of self-deprecating jokes in the  weeks before the event attested to that.

Like many people, I find public speaking difficult and felt minor anxiety right up until the beginning of the ceremony, but by the time I reached the lectern (see me super-tiny above and super-massive on screen) I knew that my fear was bigger than whether I’d get through the speech without a dry mouth.

The enormity of following a household name was suddenly no joking matter. I worried I wasn’t up to the brief of ‘inspiring the girls for the modern world’. Why did I think for a second that I was going to have something to say that she hadn’t previously expressed, bigger, better and with more authority? I felt like I wasn’t good enough; a fake who’d be found out for being somehow ‘less’. I was also struck by the irony that it was another woman’s entirely deserved success making me feel like that.

Cadogan Hall. A whopper.

I’ve always felt very secure in what I’ve achieved on Muddy Stilettos, and have never doubted its success, even in the early days when virtually no-one in the Home Counties even knew what social media was. But it turns out that deep-buried insecurities, the sleeper terrorist cells of the brain, can be activated in an instant. So I stepped up to the lectern, and prepared to fail.

And guess what? It was absolutely fine. Afterwards I was told everyone liked the fact I’d been so grounded and honest, discussing my failures and low points in my entrepreneurial journey as well as my successes. My self-doubt had been a mind-numbing waste of emotional energy in the weeks running up to the event; energy that could’ve been better spent on my work.

I’ve since done some reading about imposter syndrome and it turns out it has serious consequences, especially for female business owners. Research by NatWest show that nearly half of female entrepreneurs say that imposter syndrome has stopped them applying for funding which is clearly a massive shame – and missed opportunity.

But there are ways to combat imposter syndrome that I’ve since researched (I’m not a journalist for nothing!), and I’m going to use next time self-doubt takes hold – and maybe these insights will help you too. Firstly, tackle what is an irrational fear by deploying the rational side of your brain. So write down all your achievements and look back over your career history. Pretty impressive, right? Definitely not the CV of a faker. And – this is a bit folksy but so true – I think entrepreneurs particularly but in fact all of us in the business world need to be kinder to ourselves. If a friend said she was scared she wasn’t accomplished enough to give a speech, you wouldn’t say, “Hmmm. You’ve got a point, you’re a bit rubbish really.” You’d give her a pep talk. Treat yourself the way you’d treat a good friend.

I’d be interested to hear what you do when imposter syndrome strikes at work. Anyone got any tried-and-tested advice that worked for them?

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2 comments on “The bane of your working life?”

  • Linda October 15, 2019

    thanks for the article on imposter syndrome. This is something I come across often with my clients, no matter what level in their careers they are at – from starting out to at the top! In hypnosis I get them to picture themselves giving a great speech, feeling comfortable and safe, get them to tune into their skills and successes and how they got where they are, remind them that all they are doing is sharing information, that it’s ok to make a mistake, as well as the advice you have already given above!

  • Julia Adams March 3, 2021

    Hi there,
    Imposter syndrome can be a real barrier to women’s career progress and seems to reflect the fact the business culture was historically not designed for women and definitely not for mothers. Anyone who studies culture will say they don’t shift anywhere nearly as quickly as we’d all like! Imposter syndrome seems rooted often in events that happened in our childhood or even earlier. So what to do? Well there is a great technique for changing unhelpful beliefs about ourselves called EFT. Why not Google it and check it out? In fact it worked so well for my own life that I trained in it and now I help others to shift their own internal barriers out of their way, and adopt new more helpful nourishing ones instead. The first site has a brief introduction to it and link to the scientific evidence and the second site helps you get started on doing it yourself.

    Good luck!


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